Kozlov, Tiafoe, Wiersholm and O'Loughlin Reach Les Petits As Quarterfinals; The Problem with Junior Tennis
A quick update on the action today at Les Petits As, which saw four of the six remaining Americans advance to the singles quarterfinals.
Top seed Stefan Kozlov, No. 2 seed Henrik Wiersholm and unseeded Francis Tiafoe won in straight sets, with Tiafoe beating No. 7 seed Michal Demek of Poland 6-1, 7-5. Eduardo Nava lost to Sasha Merzetti of Italy in today's third round. In the girls draw, No. 16 seed Carolyn Xie lost to top seed Francoise Abanda of Canada 6-2, 6-2. All eight girls matches today were decided in straight sets. No. 8 seed Julia O'Loughlin defeated No. 10 seed Anna Sviripa of Ukraine 6-3, 6-2. Kozlov and Wiersholm, the top seeds in doubles, lost in the quarterfinals to Canadians Alejandro Tabilo and David Volfson 6-1, 7-6(5), leaving four unseeded teams in the semifinals.
For complete draws, see the tournament website.
A couple of days ago, the Wall Street Journal published this article entitled "The Problem with Junior Tennis."
I'm likely to sound defensive about this, because I've centered my working life around junior tennis, but after reading the article, I still haven't figured out what the reporter thinks the problem with junior tennis is.
It seems to boil down to this: There's no guarantee that the winner of the Australian Junior Championships will go on to win Grand Slams as a professional. I personally don't see that as a problem that demands as its solution the elimination of junior slams. If anything the lack of a direct correlation just adds to the excitement of the sport and demonstrates the many mysterious factors that determine professional success.
Probably my biggest objection, after the vaguely defined "problem," is the opening three sentences.
Later this week, one boy and one girl will win junior singles titles here at the Australian Open. There will be trophies, lots of smiles and some breathless talk about the future.That is just so dismissive of players who haven't won a slam, even if they are well-known to casual tennis fans. Jelena Jankovic, Shahar Peer and Viktoria Azarenka, three AO girls champions from the last decade, have fashioned long and successful careers at the top of the professional game. How about Janko Tipsarevic, Marcos Baghdatis and Gael Monfils? Ever heard of them? All have won the Australian Open boys title in the past ten years.
If history is any guide, however, it's probably the last we'll hear from them.
Despite the denigrating tone, there are some interesting kernels in the article that would stand on their own if expanded upon. It touches on the fact that the Australian Open Junior Championships attract the weakest fields of the four junior slams, a problem the senior event had for many years. Why did the professional event grow in stature over the years, while the junior event continues to lag? Is it the distance, the expense, the other competitive alternatives this time of year, the fact that if a junior wins it all, he or she knows it's the last we'll hear of them?(a little joke there). Or is it because, excepting the professional players, there are fewer of the coaches, agents, equipment reps, media, etc. that make for maximum exposure for a junior who does make the trip? Lots of good questions that don't get asked or answered.
I agree with the premise that players are not ready to compete for slam titles as early in their careers as they once were, but does that really make junior slams obsolete? For girls particularly, who are limited in the number of professional events they can play from age 14-18, the junior slams give them an opportunity to compete with the best of their age group.
Lagardere's John Tobias is quoted as saying "a lot of players choose not to go through the traditional junior route and they're kind of skipping that and starting to play the lower level professional tournaments at a really early age."
This is, of course, the route that most Spanish boys have taken in the past, the most notable of whom is Rafael Nadal. Nadal played only one junior slam--2002 Wimbledon--and was beaten in the semifinals there by Lamine Ouahab of Algeria. He played Futures and Challengers almost exclusively, but on the other hand you have Roger Federer, who played all the junior slams and many, many other lesser junior tournaments, so if there's a true pattern there, I don't think it's an obvious one.
I think junior slams, while perhaps not as fertile an environment as they once were from an agent's perspective, still serve the same mission they did when teens ruled the tennis world. Back then, the article states, "the stars of tomorrow accumulated experience (and occasionally rubbed shoulders with the sport's stars on the practice courts),[and] their junior matches gave organizers an excuse to continue selling grounds passes at a point where a majority of players in the senior draws had already been sent home."
Playing in a junior slam is also a reward for the hard work required to become a world class junior tennis player. After years of playing in front of parents and coaches, it is also chance for a player to gauge his or her comfort level in the spotlight such venues offer, against opponents they often have never played.
I just don't see how any of this is constitutes a "problem."